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VERDI: Luisa Miller

spacer Golovneva, Fuchs; Robert, Sulimsky, Shtonda, Arvidson; Malmö Opera Chorus and Orchestra, Güttler. Production: Vizioli. Arthaus Musik 101 688. 152 mins., subtitled

LuisaMillerDVD

From a glance at the DVD box, this Luisa Miller didn’t extend much promise: Sweden’s “third city” opera house; a mostly unknown cast; a German conductor whose name I couldn’t immediately place; and an even less familiar director. And as my watching began, I wasn’t encouraged: here’s a shot of a man’s upper torso as he adjusts the cuffs of his formal shirt; here’s the Malmö Opera, outside and in; here’s that gentleman again, a score of Luisa now visible on a table, then a baton; and now the camera follows that slim, elegant figure down a hall to the orchestra pit, where the overture begins. Now there’s a long shot; now some close-ups of individual instruments — but when the important clarinet solo begins, we’re suddenly backstage, with a chorister adjusting a wig, singers doing singerly things, two fellows in military garb smiling and waving at the camera. It’s fussy and irritating: just give us the music, please — especially when it’s being so well shaped and played.

But then the curtain rises on a pleasurably spare, simple set — a grassy knoll framed by a pair of sculpted hands against a cerulean sky — and a whole series of pleasant surprises ensues. Luisa is alone, napping, and the villagers awaken her for a birthday picnic; she’s picture-pretty and moves with balletic grace. Concerned papa and ardent beau both dote on her. Everyone behaves naturally and convincingly, unimprisoned by any Regie conceit. 

That’s the great general pleasure of director Stefano Vizioli’s Luisa: he delivers Verdi’s opera pure and simple and lets us enjoy it as its clear, cogent self. Vizioli (who’s worked, it seems, everywhere from Bloomington to Beijing) knows how to set a scene and keep it spinning. I don’t blame him for the video director’s sins — which, I was happy to discover, recur only once, briefly, at the start of Act III.  

Vizioli’s cast enjoys similar virtues: though not the most vocally glamorous aggregation, they all sing honestly and well and fully inhabit their roles. Russian soprano Olesya Golovneva makes a lovely, lyric-weight heroine, her voice bright but never glaring and not incapable of darker tincture; I can’t imagine, visually and dramatically, a better Luisa. As her father, her compatriot Vladislav Sulimsky — Ezio in the recent Mariinsky Attila DVD — acts nobly and sings handsomely, though his unwritten high notes aren’t his finest moments. (The climax of “Sacra la scelta” offers a particularly unstylish example.) 

Another handsome voice belongs to Canadian Luc Robert, the Rodolfo. In close-ups he resembles one of those Hollywood leading men of yore who were a bit too old for their roles but knew exactly how to play them; in the theater, of course, that’s no problem, and I look forward to his Met Ernani next season. Rodolfo’s father, the conflictedly murderous Count Walter, is commandingly taken by Ukrainian Taras Shtonda (Glyndebourne’s Gremin this summer), whose big, dark, rolling tone invites admiration. Walter’s partner-in-crime, the craven Wurm, makes a bigger-than-usual impression in the person of Swedish bass-baritone Lars Arvidson (a descendant of Ulrica’s, perhaps?) — quite literally bigger, since he towers above everyone else in the cast, but he’s also immensely watchable with his lip-smacking villainy. Likewise, German mezzo Ivonne Fuchs is an unusually assertive, and burnished-voiced, Federica. And everything is held together tightly — but never too tightly — by the gentleman we saw dressing at the start of the show. It took a moment, but my memory reminded me that I’d heard Michael Güttler conduct a light-footed but compelling Siegfried in Washington, D.C., five years back; he performs the same service for Verdi here. But do close your eyes for the overture. spacer 

PATRICK DILLON

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